Tuesday, February 01, 2011

When Math Is Uncool, Other Nations Eat Our Lunch

Since I attended high school in California in the 1970's, things have changed in so many ways. Not the least of these changes has been the gradual draining of rigor from math and science instruction in America's elementary and secondary schools.

As we faced the threat of Soviet domination in critical scientific fields, American schools (and particularly those in California) were second to none, and produced the most reliable stream of super brains the world had ever seen.

Today, national academic goals and priorities have shifted dramatically to raising the academic floor while virtually ignoring the needs of gifted students. The unhappy result is that the full potential of our best and brightest young minds is going to waste.

Below are excerpts from an article on the subject by Sara Rimer appearing recently in the New York Times:

The United States is failing to develop the math skills of both girls and boys, especially among those who could excel at the highest levels, a new study asserts, and girls who do succeed in the field are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries where mathematics is more highly valued.

... in China math is regarded as an essential skill that everyone should try to develop at some level. Parents in China, he said, view math as parents in the United States do baseball, hockey and soccer.

“There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn’t really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics,” said Michael Sipser, the head of M.I.T.’s math department. “Sports achievement gets lots of coverage in the media. Academic achievement gets almost none.”

In America today, intelligence and academic achievement are not only generally underrated; it has now actually become fashionable to deride intellectual prowess and accomplishment. Increasingly, the doltish are hailed as heroes while those with the sharpest minds are ignored or shunned as undesirable.

One needs look no farther for crystal clear evidence of the victory of mediocrity over excellence in our culture than the recently concluded 2008 presidential election, in which a gifted scholar and brilliant orator was framed as "elite" in contrast to inarticulate intellectual super-lightweights who were touted as "true, genuine Americans."

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber are the new models. Bushisms and mangled communication have become acceptable. Smart just isn't cool, anymore. Math is for Asians ... not for "real" Americans.

Raise the floor, yes, by all means. But don't forget that raising the ceiling is just as important.

Other countries understand this. We ingore it at our peril.

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